Facing a backbench revolt – and with every opinion poll, public and private, showing he’s toxic with voters – Tony Abbott is staring at almost certain political death. The Prime Minister might survive Tuesday’s leadership spill but it’s extremely hard to see how he can survive in the longer term.
If Abbott wants to give the party the best chances of a swift recovery, he should stand down and spare the party some of the bloodletting.
The electorate has made up its mind. Voters want to get rid of a national leader who, for a long time, was on probation but who’s now entered the death zone.
The numbers were uncertain on Friday night. But too many of his colleagues have now decided Abbott must be replaced if they are to avoid being belted into oblivion at the next federal poll.
Whether that occurs next week or in a few months, I can’t see the PM holding on. Desperate ministers were hitting the phones on Friday afternoon, attempting to dissuade nervous backbenchers from abandoning Abbott. These tactics might work in the short term.
But the PM would have to show that he’s capable of turning around the Coalition’s fortunes to hold on. And on present indications that it just not possible. Tony Abbott is now perhaps the least popular national leader since, well, federation. Voters across this wide land, including in the bluest of blue ribbon electorates, have decided the PM’s a national embarrassment and should go. This message was delivered loud and clear to rattled Liberal MPs over the summer break.
At the same time Liberal MPs know that a change of leader to either Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop will turbo-charge the Coalition’s support base. A 7News/Reachtel poll of 3,000 people – conducted on Thursday night – shows Turnbull, the former Opposition leader who was brought down by his colleagues in 2009, would deliver an election-winning lead to the Coalition, 54 to 46 per cent on a two-party preferred basis. Compare this to the current polls which show Bill Shorten and Labor with a smashing lead, of 55 to 45 per cent, over the Abbott-led Coalition.
Further polls will be conducted over the next few days, and they’ll tell a similar story.
Parliamentarians in marginal electorates are galvanized into action when they are faced with oblivion. The cold hard reality is that many of the Coalition’s 90 MPs in the House of Representatives will be wiped out if they don’t change leaders. There is little that can be done to resuscitate Abbott’s leadership. His promise to be more consultative and collegiate has only reminded colleagues that they have been treated abysmally since the September 2013 election victory.
The Coalition’s hopes of offering a raft of budget sweeteners has also been dashed after the Reserve Bank slashed growth forecasts. This will only add to the level of despair that had been building within Coalition ranks as they looked on at a series of embarrassing gaffes, with the Prince Phillip knighthood the crowning glory.
On Friday, the dam walls finally broke with a handful of backbenchers – all from Western Australia – taking matters into their own hands. Whether they have the momentum to secure the required 52 votes is uncertain. But there is no doubt that a good number, perhaps a majority, simply want to blast Abbott out, fed up with his performance and fed up with being treated with contempt.
The only certainty going into the weekend is that it will be virtually impossible to unite the Coalition team whatever the outcome from Tuesday and coming weeks and months. Already the Nationals were threatening to prise the Coalition apart if Turnbull – with his very moderate small ‘l’ Liberal views – is elected as leader.
But those threats will likely dissipate if the leadership is handed to Turnbull or Julie Bishop (and don’t discount her chances, if it comes to a ballot).
So, as the leader and his would-be challengers hit the phones over what will be an extraordinary three or four days in Australian politics, it seems nothing will save the PM.
The Coalition party room is in a feral mood. There are too many experienced and hardened Liberal warriors who have decided that Abbott must go.
No leader can survive against this political force of nature, particularly one as unpopular as Tony Abbott. The end is nigh.